BR auto dealer Gerry Lane dies Friday

Gerald Ray “Gerry” Lane, owner of seven Baton Rouge car dealerships and a pillar of the local philanthropic community, died at his home Friday after a long battle with cancer.

He was 82.

Lane was remembered Friday by friends and family for treating others with respect and dignity and for a work ethic that helped him lead and shape the local auto business.

Eric Lane, Lane’s son and vice president of Lane Enterprises, said the company’s slogan was more than mere words; they summed up his father’s essence.

“You can count on Gerry Lane,” Lane said. “That was it. You could always count on dad, that he would do the right thing: talk to the customer about a problem; visit with employees of all economic status; that when someone had a problem in the community and they needed a donation, he was the first one to do it.”

“He was an incredible talent,” said Skip Bertman, longtime LSU baseball coach and the university’s former athletic director. “His ability to sell and to lead in the automobile industry is legendary.”

Gerry Lane sold his first car on June 3, 1953, on his first day on the job at Pearson Ford in San Diego. His new bosses gave the 22-year-old the keys to a new Ford, told him to go find a way to sell it, or lose his job. Lane told biographer Leo Honeycutt that he stood on a street corner and asked strangers for help.

“I told these people, ‘I’m young and inexperienced, but I’ll get you as good a deal as I can get for anybody and I’ll treat you right and I’ll be here to take care of you,’’ he recalled in the book, “Gerry Lane: An American Success Story.”

Three years later, Lane started selling cars at Capitol City Ford in Baton Rouge. He fell in love with the city and, at 26, became the youngest general manager in the country at Polk Chevrolet.

But by 1966, frustrated at being passed over for dealership ownership, he found his opportunity on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, purchasing a failing dealership in Bay St. Louis and turning it around within a year.

Lane repeated that success with dealerships in Pascagoula, Gulfport and Lucedale, Miss., and Gonzales.

However, he never forgot his affection for Baton Rouge, and when his mentor, Herb Polk, was ready to sell Polk Chevrolet, Lane jumped at the chance to return to Baton Rouge. He quickly took the 13th place local market dealership to first place.

Over the course of 46 years, dealerships owned by Gerry Lane have compiled gross sales topping $10 billion.

Bertman said Lane, who has estimated he hired and trained 5,000 salespeople and 3,000 managers, influenced the local auto sales business through his strong work ethic.

“He developed a tremendous talent pool that was taken in by his competitors,” he said. “He helped competitors and other people in the business get better just because he did it better.”

Bertman said Lane also changed the way local dealers did business in more specific ways.

“The other (dealers) closed if LSU was playing Saturday night football,” Bertman recalled, noting Gerry Lane stayed open and sold cars. “He put an end to that.”

Daughter Saundra Lane, director of the Lane Agency, said that the risk-taking, bohemian lifestyle that characterized her early 20s, when she left home to put on fashion shows in New York City, were not so far off from her father, who left his home in a small town in Oklahoma for California, taking night classes at UCLA.

“He instilled fearlessness,” she said. “He helped us be able to trust our instincts and go for it, to make a decision wrong or right. He helped me have strength and faith in myself.”

Lane recalled asking her father to come up to a fashion show she had put together for the fifth anniversary of a private club when she was only 22.

He had to work. She insisted. He came, and “was blown away.

“He had no idea I could pack a house like that,” she said. “He was so proud of me. I will never forget it.”

As Lane’s financial success grew in Baton Rouge, so did his philanthropy. The Lane family — including his wife, Faye, Saundra and Eric — has given more than $30 million to charity and community causes.

Lane is well-known for underwriting YMCA sports programs among his many community contributions and, as a former rodeo rider, sponsoring the Angola Rodeo since 1970.

He often offered jobs to inmates after they were released from prison. In 1997, he and Eric Lane helped found a night school called Operation Quick Start to teach auto systems technology.

Lane stepped up in 1995 when Karnival Krewe de Louisiane, which raised funds for Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center, was about to fold.

He also was a major contributor to the March of Dimes; Cystic Fibrosis Foundation; Arc of Baton Rouge; LSU’s Rural Life Museum; and the Krewe of Apollo’s Mardi Gras Ball benefiting its HIV/AIDS Crisis Fund.

“If he thought it was worthwhile, he did it,” Bertman said. “If he thought it could help, he did it.”

Visitation will be at Green-oaks Funeral Home, 9595 Florida Blvd., Monday from noon to 5 p.m., followed by a private burial at the family mausoleum at Greenoaks Memorial Park & Funeral Home.